Let's say you’re a town looking to zone an entertainment area, and you have lots of religious institutions in town. Then the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just became your best buddy. That's because they say you’re good to go ---and you can keep religious institutions zoned out of the area. Seems like a First Amendment issue heading to the US Supreme Court real soon. Here's the rest of the story.
There is a New Jersey statute that bans the sale of liquor within a couple of hundred feet of a church. Not quite sure what the "distance" from a church has to do with either the sale of liquor or praying, but the ban does impose a burden on towns looking to beef up their night life. In this case, it was Long Branch.
Long Branch was always known for years as a popular resort town. Even presidents visited there on a regular basis for rest and relaxation----Chester A. Arthur, James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson ---just to name a few. Seven presidents, count’em, seven. There is even a park in town named Seven Presidents Park. How’s that for an accurate name?
Anyway, it seems The Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism wanted to set up shop in Long Branch, but was unable to. The town, it seems, has areas zoned so that churches would not impede the town’s entertainment zoning plans. Planned development includes the Broadway Center, a planned entertainment and commercial hub of Long Branch. This complex brings together retail shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and two performing arts theaters as well as 500 new residences sitting atop a 1,500 car parking garage. We’re sure Mayor Adam Schneider wants this plan to happen.
So, The Lighthouse does what everybody does in America [and New Jersey] these days: They called up their lawyer [in this case, their lawyer is Derek L. Gaubatz of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C] and sued the town. Their chief complaint: Long Branch violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). That acronym may sound like either an extinct species of fish or a pastry from a formerly communist Eastern European country, but I can assure you it’s good law. RLUIPA was even popular with both sides of the aisle. Both Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were strong sponsors of the law ----recognizing that “discrimination against religious entities in the land-use context is a major problem nationwide.” Good for you Ted and Orrin. Now that’s bi-partisanship.
Anyhow, the court said in the 2-1 majority opinion that "It would be very difficult for Long Branch to create the kind of entertainment area envisaged by [its redevelopment] plan - one full of restaurants, bars, and clubs - if sizable areas of the [district] were not available for the issuance of liquor licenses.” So it's hello Liquor, good-bye Lord, I guess.
The decision could have nationwide impact because the circuit courts are split on the issue. And yet another important case from New Jersey could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Do we rock or what?
New Jersey land-use lawyers had better get their act together, appeal brief-wise. With our melting pot mixture of religions, local zoning officials, and strong feelings of municipal home rule, this will see more action very soon.